Artist: Beastie Boys
Title: An Open Letter To NYC
Description: single; track from To The 5 Boroughs
Release date: 2004; 2005
First heard: 2004
Dear New York, I know a lot has changed
Two towers down, but you’re still in the game
It may seem obscure to go off-doctrine and overlook those cultural-landscaping early Beastie Boys singles like (You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), No Sleep ’Till Brooklyn and The New Style, or even the more mature, accomplished bells/whistles direction personified by the likes of Sabotage and Intergalactic, but what’s not even the lead-off but the third single from their sixth album, To The 5 Boroughs, strikes me as one of their most important. This time it’s personal.
The album as a whole, self-produced and recorded between 2002 and 2004 while the cosmic and actual dust was still settling after the September 11 attacks, acts as a love letter to their home city. By definition, this track amplifies that sentiment, a fluent and heartfelt lyrical adventure around the landmarks of their misspent youth and a moving tribute to the diverse populations that make New York the melting pot it has always been (“Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/Black, white, New York, you make it happen”). Aside from Bleecker Bob’s and Battery Park, I don’t even recognise all the local namechecks, but this just makes them more evocative: the Deuce, Blimpies, Fulton Street Mall, the L.I.E., the B.Q.E., I could look them up but that would let light in on magic.
I remember going nuts for this the moment I heard it, and playing it excitedly on Roundtable on 6 Music, whereby guest Stewart Lee remained unmoved as he felt that much of its appeal lay in the driving guitar riff appropriated from The Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer. He really is a curmudgeon. The use of that riff is part of its genius; likewise the opening stab of New York’s My Home by Broadway star Robert Goulet (“Listen, all you New Yorkers”). The construction of the song around the Dead Boys lick, with a clicky beat and the Beasties’ trademark drawling three-way rap, is simplicity itself, and allows for close examination of the lyric, which is the heart of the tune: “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan …”
It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring. And their sixth album is way better than it probably has any right to be (Rolling Stone awarded it five stars). Michael Gillette’s stark line drawing of a New York skyline that includes the Twin Towers is poignant, too. (His artwork was followed through to related sleeves – including the one pictured – and promos.)
The list of American songs written and released in response to 9/11 is unsurprisingly long; everyone from Sheryl Crow and Living Colour to Neil Young and Sleater-Kinney. Springsteen wrote a whole album. But I would nominate An Open Letter as the finest, funkiest and least mawkish I’ve heard from the locals.